A blast from the past

With all the kerfuffle at the moment about new laws to protect artists' copyright, I thought this might be of interest.  

We have about 6,000 books in our house.  One of them is The Second Saint Omnibus, by Leslie Charteris, published in 1952.  The Saint was one of the great adventure heroes of last century, and Charteris one of the great writers.  Even people who've not read the books know The Saint from the TV series starring Roger Moore.  In 1952 -- note that date -- Leslie Charteris had this to say in the preface of his book.  

I read a few books every year.  Not so many as I should, I guess; but as many as I have time for...and when I read, I am just as callous about hungry writers as you are.  I, too, rent books from the library.  Or borrow them from friends, if I can.
In spite of these reprehensible economies, quite a few writers have succeeded in making a fair living; and you have been kind enough to let me be one of them.
What the public never seems to have cared about is that, no matter how well he sells, a writer is stuck with one of the most under-privileged professions of modern times; and I am in a mood to take this opportunity of putting my gripe on record.
Let a man build up any other kind of business, and any stock, any goodwill, or any other interest pertaining to it that he does not sell, hypothecate, or give away, is his personal property...and since the idea of personal property was first conceived, this has always seemed an obviously right and just arrangement, except to Communists.
But let a man devote his life to the production of literature, and the laws of copyright give him no such lasting protection...universally it appears to be thought entirely right that after a limited time the fruit of a writer's brain should be taken from him...and thrown into a thing called the "public domain" -- an almost Communistic concept in itself...
For this fantastic discrimination I have to hold you, the public, responsible.  Writers, themselves, will never be a sufficiently large class to attract the benevolent interest of a politician.  And this politician, whom you elect, knows very well that he will never lose any of your votes for continuing to ignore such a well established injustice against an insignificant minority of rogues and vagabonds, which everybody knows writers are, anyway.

How to get divorced in ancient Athens

I and the family are on holidays in a lovely town called Coff's Harbour, about 6 hours north of Sydney.  I'm writing this on a netbook tethered to an iPhone, so only the net.gods know how it's going to look when I'm finished.  Anyway, here goes...

People who've been reading this blog for some time know that much of it is research overflow from my books. You can't put everything you know into a story.  So as not to waste anything, I put the leftovers here.  Given the title of this post you might therefore presume that in some future book, someone's going to get divorced.

In classical Athens, if a man wanted to divorce his wife, he needed only to say so.   The wife was then required to leave the marriage home.  She would have to go live with her closest male relative, who typically would be her father if he was still alive, or else a brother.  But there was a kicker to this.  Not only did the wife leave, but her dowry went with her.  Every last drachma.  Or if it was property, every last little bit of land.  This was totally enforceable by law.

The Greek dowry system, you see, was like the ancient version of a trust fund in the lady's name, to be administered by her husband for her benefit.  Obviously in the normal course of a happy married life it's all in the family, and when the wife dies her dowry would be inherited by her sons.  But in the event of divorce the dowry does not belong to the husband.  It's the woman's retirement fund, supplied by her father.  This meant that the larger the dowry, the less likely an unhappy marriage was to break down.  There was more than one man dependent on his wife's dowry property for most of his income.

Women too could declare a divorce, but the process for them was slightly different.  An unhappy wife had to leave her home, walk to the agora, which in addition to being the marketplace was also where all the government offices were, find an archon (that's a city official), and tell him she wanted to divorce.  Quite what happened during the conversation is unclear -- there's not a single surviving text to tell us -- I presume that at the least the archon would satisfy himself that the lady had a male relative to go to.  But the archon would then agree, and at that instant the divorce was complete.  She then left the home, with her dowry.

The divorce rate was much, much smaller than modern times.  Also there was no such thing as gossip rags back then (we've definitely gone downhill on that one).  Consequently there are only a handful of documented divorce cases.  The cases however make it clear that women could divorce simply by seeing an archon.

This rule led to the most bizarre divorce case in the city's history.

There was a General and politician by the name of Alcibiades, whose wife Hipparete despaired of him  because he constantly consorted with prostitutes.  Unable to take it any more, she began the walk to the agora.  Her husband Alcibiades got wind of this.  He turned up just as she was crossing the agora, picked her up bodily, and carried her home.  She never tried again.

Alcibiades' actions were far from the norm, so much so that people were still talking about it hundreds of years after it happened.

Now here's the converse:  there's actually a case where a couple were sued in an ancient Athenian court to prove that their divorce was a sham.  It seemed the husband was due to pay a large sum.  But unfortunately for his debtors, almost all his property had come as his wife's dowry, and it just so happened that she had divorced him moments before the debt fell due.  The debtors promptly sued, asking what archon had heard the wife's divorce (it turned out not a single archon had a record of talking to her), and pointing out that they were still living together.  This scam is absolutely identical to the modern version, where a man about to go bankrupt, or be sued, transfers all his property into his wife's name to quarantine it from being taken.  It seems like such a modern scam, but it was invented  in classical Athens.

A killing financial problem

Sometimes, it just sucks to be an accountant.  Back in classical Athens, there was a group of ten city officials, elected yearly, called the Hellenotamiae.  They were the official city treasurers, their job to manage the money vault buried beneath the Parthenon.  The sums they handled were vast.

The Athenians, being the untrusting souls they were, checked the accounts on a regular basis.  On one occasion, the numbers didn't add up.  The ten treasurers were instantly charged with embezzlement.

This is what happened, from a surviving court case that mentions this unfortunate incident as a precedent:
Then again, your Hellenotamiae were once accused of embezzlement... Anger swept reason aside, and they were all put to death save one. Later the true facts became known.
This one, whose name is said to have been Sosias, though under sentence of death, had not yet been executed. Meanwhile it was shown how the money had disappeared. The Athenian people rescued him from the very hands of the Eleven, while the rest had died entirely innocent.

The Eleven was the official Athenian body responsible for carry out state executions.  In other words, Sosias had been in the hands of his executioners when they retrieved him.  The implication of the "it was shown how the money had disappeared" is that it was a mistake in the books.

So the other nine treasurers died for an accounting error.

Horos stones

Ancient Greeks were not particularly good at public records.  In fact, to tell the truth, they sucked at it.

This wasn't as big a problem as you might think; it's only recently that modern people have taken the view that life is impossible unless every little detail gets written down.

There was one point, however, where the Greeks needed to do better, and that was recording who owned what land.  Believe it or not, there was no registry of land ownership.  This made for an interesting problem.

They solved the problem by putting boundary stones around everyone's property.  Horos means limit, or boundary.  A horos stone is a boundary marker with a legal enforceable meaning.  The stones were normally quite large, I suspect they were typically painted white to make them easy to see.  Most, but not all, had something written on them: a standard formula declaring the stone to be a legal boundary.

All land, to be legally owned, had to be enclosed by horos stones placed at regular intervals.  I think the usual interval was probably a stade, that being the length of the Olympic competition field, and the origin of our word stadium.

Here, from the excellent stoa.org, is one of the surviving horos stones for the agora in Athens.  There's an inscription on it that reads, "I am the boundary of the agora."  (Horos stones always spoke in first person.)

Needless to say, there were countless court cases where one farmer claimed his neighbour had moved the boundary stones.  In those cases it all hung on witnesses.  Since the stones were embedded in the ground, moving them would leave fairly obvious holes, even if the culprit filled them with fresh dirt.  Also everyone in the area would know everyone else's business and if the boundary shifted locals would probably spot it.  

If you wanted to sell land, then the law varied wildly from city to city.  In Athens — I'm on shaky ground here, but I think I have it right — both parties had to post the sale with one of the city magistrates for 60 days, after which it was a done deal as long as no one objected.  This rule was presumably to ensure no scammer sold someone else's property.   There was actually no other defense.  I can only assume a few con artists got away with it.